Behold a Pale Horse, and Its Rider's Name Was DC
(On September's Reboot & Digital Distribution)
It's official, ladies and germs!
For years, DC Comics has been a pillar of stability in the comics community. In the late 1990s, when Marvel Comics was relaunching nearly every title in their line, "Heroes Reborn" this and "Heroes Return" that, when the books with the highest numbering restarted for the sake of new and "hot" creative teams and gimmicks, DC stood firm. Yes, they did have that "Zero Month" shtick in 1994 where all of their books released "Zero" issues meant as jumping-on points, and there was that month in 1998 where every series was numbered 1,000,000 for another line-wide event. Still, DC didn't forsake their history for a fleeting bump in sales figures. Action Comics and Detective Comics hit their 700th and 800th issue milestones. The retitled Adventures of Superman (so done in the wake of John Byrne's 1986 relaunch) even became regular old Superman again after the Infinite Crisis crossover, keeping its numbering in the mid-600s. While it's true that DC did "relaunch" some series started in the eighties or nineties, they kept their "sacred cows" starring their biggest draws intact.
Last year, DC seemed poised to give back to fans like Marvel had started to do, taking Wonder Woman and adding the numbering schemes of all the series' various incarnations together to debut a 600th issue. Then--oddly--they began a "new era" of the Wonder Woman character, complete with a new costume and new history, keeping the series numbering with #601-forward. To stave off dire price increases to Marvel and IDW's near-poisonous price point of $3.99 USD, they deployed a radical initiative in January that promised they were "Holding the Line at $2.99," keeping the cost of individual issues low while sacrificing two story pages per issue, replacing them with editorial content. All the while, the specter of digital piracy loomed, with companies flirting with same-day digital sales on select titles. Recently, sales figures suggested that the "Holding the Line" initiative wasn't working. Okay, so what could work to bring DC Comics more in line with, and even surpass, Marvel Comics, its distant first-place competition in the market?
Yesterday, in an article by Brian Truitt of USA Today, DC Comics Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns and Co-Publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee signaled the next major creative shift in the company with both the advent of same-day digital releases and the complete relaunching of the DC Universe in September with the arrival of 52 new first issues. Those 52 new "number ones" will reintroduce core DC characters and concepts and feature art designs by Lee, and the initiative will lead off with Johns and Lee teaming on a new incarnation of the Justice League shipping August 31.
Hence, DC Comics has put themselves squarely at the finish line of a debate they'd been having with Marvel these last two-plus decades. They have effectively one-upped Marvel in the attitude that the only numbers that matter are circulation figures, not the history that comes with 900-plus consecutive issues of a given series. At the same time, they've given a giant, Green Lantern-on-steroids middle finger to already tenuously-positioned retailers across the country with this sweeping strategy designed ostensibly to bring new fans to the realm of comics.
Don't believe me? The case is pretty damning.
Marvel has been, let's face it, horrible to fans both new and old who try to follow their stories. As I've been through in a previous post, they've become renumbering opportunists, adding up the previous volumes of given series to arrive at some magical anniversary number so they can enjoy a momentary sales bump, then turning around and relaunching said title due to a film release or other advantageous situation. In some cases (Black Panther: Man Without Fear, Journey Into Mystery, the upcoming Captain America & Bucky) the books have both relaunched and had their "original" numbering overtaken by another title to split revenue streams and further glut a market already suffering in the wake of piracy issues and the ongoing attempt to compete with other, more popular forms of entertainment (video games, et al). They like to have it both ways, renumbering when it's convenient, as a sales gimmick, as something to promote a new movie, or a new creative team. They've taken what they learned with "Heroes Reborn" (the first, and until now the most egregious use of renumbering at a major comics company) and turned it into an art.
DC Comics has just beaten Marvel at their own game. Now, I understand that this development won't be a total reboot. It will involve some twisting of their cohesive "universe" through the current "event" series Flashpoint, warping various facets of their characters into new "reader-friendly" versions. Although many, many series will conclude long-range storylines with their August issues, the plots of those pre-"Number One Initiative" issues won't be altogether forgotten, if the words of various DC writers on Twitter, such as Detective Comics scribe Scott Snyder, are to be taken as truth. It won't be a wholesale reboot, the like of which Marv Wolfman had suggested follow his landmark Crisis on Infinite Earths maxiseries (that resulted only in the rebooting of Superman and Wonder Woman in the sense he wished, and quasi-rebooting of The Flash and, after a fashion, Green Lantern).
But with the complete renumbering of each DC Comics title from #1, the company removes the explicit sense of history that comes with a title that has had one continuous numbering scheme that reaches back decades. It used to be that high numbering was a sign of establishment, of a series whose pedigree was impeccable. A title in the 1960s numbered in the single digits or in the teens was an upstart, not to be trusted, but one numbering in the hundreds had weathered the storm, experienced highs and lows and emerged unscathed, and perhaps even richer for the experience. As I'm going to get into in a subsequent article, that attitude shifted with both the advent of the comics direct market and the concept of the limited series. Again it shifted with the "event" series, the proliferation of the crossover, and the overcommercialization of product in the 1990s from which the market still hasn't recovered. The flood of new #1 issues that began in the 1980s and escalated through the 1990s hasn't stopped, and this move by DC may prove the most disastrous of them all.
"From the company that brought you 'The Death of Superman' comes the event to finish off brick-and-mortar comics shops like Adventures of Superman #500 nearly did in 1993..."
You might look at the argument presented thus far and think, "So what?" So what if DC Comics is relegating the history of their characters to the Recycle Bin? A new number one's a fresh start. But what about 52 new starts all coming at you at once? That's intimidating enough for a fan or someone who's just coming into the hobby! 52 new books means that, on average, thirteen new first issues will hit the stands each week in September. But no, you haven't tumbled to the real imminent threat out there. The one that decides if your local comic shop will be a viable place to purchase your favorite series.
Your local comic shop has a difficult enough time gauging the interest of the dozen-or-so new #1 issues that each of the big companies offers in their solicitations every month. Now, DC Comics will offer, in just a few short weeks, a catalogue devoted almost entirely to first issues! How will they react? It's a fair point to express that many retailers over-ordered books in the 1990s, like X-Men #1, X-Force #1, Spider-Man #1, and even Adventures of Superman #500--that white-polybagged "Return of Superman" issue of which I spoke. If retailers underestimate demand, then they are left with a host of unsatisfied customers to whom they couldn't supply the issue(s) desired, who might shop elsewhere or else totally miss out on an issue and hence an entire series (or two, or three, etc.). If they overestimate demand and order too many copies, then they're left with inventory they can't sell, and they lose money. If that amounts to only a couple of books each month, then really that's not too bad and the store can recoup their losses elsewhere. They can also adjust their orders on upcoming books with their distributor, generally up to three weeks before the next issue ships.
Remember that a lot of comic shops went belly-up in the 1990s due to a number of things, but one of the big contributors was over-ordering during the speculator boom. Retailers were left with too much product they couldn't sell--the end. Most of the time, that was a series of decisions made over a long period of time. What would happen if, over a month's time, a comic shop spent an exorbitant amount of money, ordering a large number of books they suspected they might sell as result of the huge media push related to the new initiative--only to find that the demand wasn't there?
Especially if no series currently exists for the new #1s that stand to be introduced in September, retailers wouldn't be able to accurately predict the number of copies they need. Again, you might ask, well, so what? As I mentioned before, DC's done the line-wide issue renumbering on two separate occasions (#0 and #1,000,000). And one of those events in particular was designed similarly to this one, as a jump-on point for new readers. But both those events took place in a stronger sales climate. The first was at the middle of the 1990s speculator boom. The second, well, it had its share of issues that functioned as series finales (Young Heroes In Love, Chase, others) but was largely in service to the DC One Million event. This time? Retailers are in a tough situation from all sides, with even fiercer competition from video games and other forms of entertainment. Circulation figures have fallen and prices have risen precipitously.
And then, also as mentioned, DC and other companies are feeling the squeeze from digital piracy, with the majority of their lines available online for free even before the regular date of release. (It even happened with Blackest Night #6, a book that was shipped early to retailers but wasn't to be made available for a week. Oops.) As result, companies have beefed up their online presence on sites such as Comixology and iTunes. They've made available apps for the iPad and smartphones like the iPhone and Android OS. Both Marvel and DC previously flirted with same-day digital releases, on Invincible Iron Man Annual #1 and Batman Beyond as well as some others.
Although regular book sales don't (quite) have the same problem with piracy as comics, booksellers such as Amazon have already made giant strides with the digital format, providing content for the Kindle and other similar products. Two weeks ago, Amazon made headlines by announcing for the first time ever, e-books are now outselling print books on their site. This trend is only expected to continue over coming months and years. Hence, companies that embrace digital distribution models are viewed as embracing the future. And DC Comics' decision to wholly do so marks them, and not Marvel, as trailblazers. However, this new trend--together with DC's massive print distribution blunder of flooding the market with #1s--also may mean the end of traditional distribution channels.
It's the perfect storm. Brick-and-mortar comic shops are limited by what they can order and what they think they can sell, while digital distributors have as many copies as potential readers desire and there's no such thing as lost inventory. And given that the conversion to digital distribution in the book market is happening much faster than the experts predicted, it makes sense that it will be the distribution path for comics. It's true that Diamond, distributor to all comic shops, is endeavoring to offer digital distribution in shops to compete with digital-only venues (i.e. websites). I'm not quite sure how such a business model can be effective, especially in such desperate economic times.
Marvel Comics is lagging behind in today's comics market in all ways but market share. Their comics are nearly the most expensive out there, and yet they flood the market with so many titles they are still not only able to compete, but win. And still, they have chosen to copy the activities of the runner-up, having also recently reduced their $2.99 titles to twenty pages of story without making a formal announcement. No doubt, the question now becomes not whether they will adopt DC Comics' policy of same-day digital distribution, but how soon? When they do, it's only a matter of time before the print version of all comics becomes a novelty item, beyond even the specialty items they have now become.
As the book market in general constricts, as booksellers like Borders fail (and even Barnes & Noble gets a takeover bid), how can the smaller comics retailers compete? Will Diamond Digital be able to stem the tide? How will the graphic novel market be impacted by these sweeping changes? Something tells me, even a year from now, we'll be looking at a very, very different comics market than we have today.
Don't misunderstand me. It seems vital now that comics' distribution channels change to save the industry as regular books' distribution channels also change. But just think about what such changes will mean for the larger industry--comics retailers, printers, mail carriers, all the way down the line. Will saving the comics industry mean doom for everything else surrounding it?
I'd love to know your thoughts. Am I acting too much like Chicken Little, or am I on-point, or am I not thinking drastic enough?